Middlebury College 2021 Baccalaureate

A recording of Middlebury College Baccalaureate. May 28, 2021

[MUSIC] Greetings, we pause to acknowledge that Middlebury College sits on land which has served as a site of meeting and exchange among indigenous peoples since time immemorial. The Western Abenaki are the traditional caretakers of these Vermont lands and waters, which they call Ndakinna, or homeland. We remember their connection to this region, and the hardships they continue to endure. Let us take a moment of silence to pay respect to the Abenaki elders, and to the indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island, past and present. We give thanks for the opportunity to share in the bounty of this place and to protect it. We are all one in the sacred web of life that connects people, animals, plants, air, water, and earth.

Spirit of wisdom, be with us here. Here where we sit, physically, together on this lawn, a profound miracle, truly. For you, our graduates, this is the first ritual step. The first ritual step into your new world. Last April, the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy wrote, quote, historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past, and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next, unquote. As you take this first step, gather all the wisdom and friendship, the skills and mentorship, the pure joy of lying in the grass to gaze up at the Vermont clouds, all that you have experienced here, wrap them like a cloak around you. Let them be your traveling garb. And along with wisdom, let us call upon imagination to join us here. Let the clear blue space between the clouds remind us of the openness of the way forward. In taking this first step towards graduation, this evening, soak in wisdom and welcome imagination. May you invent yourself, and our world anew.

Good afternoon, and welcome to our baccalaureate service. Historically, baccalaureate services provide an opportunity to pause before the festivities, and reflect on the meaning of an undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences tradition. Hence, this is an event of a traditional nature. This year, preceding the invocation pronounced by Rabbi Danielle Stillman, Associate Chaplain for Spiritual and Religious Life at the Scott Center at Middlebury, we heard our, now, official Land Acknowledgement. The Western Abenaki are the original indigenous inhabitants of Vermont. And their language holds unique concepts and terms, whose meanings deepen our relationship with, and understanding of the world around us, reminding us that everything is alive and imbued with spirit. As we move through the rituals and traditions of today’s service, I invite you also to remember the particular circumstances, the unique circumstances that bring us all together here, today. The circumstances of joy and accomplishment, and those of the pandemic, that has us seated outside and apart, in the waning period of one of the most disruptive and difficult times of the college, and the nation’s history. Four years ago, give or take a few months, whether you began in September or February, you gathered in this space to mark the beginning of your college education. I was also just coming to Middlebury, and joining you on your college journey. I was only here a year. We were all together, beginning together, and that was an auspicious occasion, so, is this. Not only have you completed your degree requirements, but you’ve done it largely in the company of the people here, your classmates, your roommates, your teammates. A space full of strangers became, four years later, a space full of friends. A chapel full of strangers became, four years later, a field full of friends. You are here together, as you were during your first days at the college. That part of your education that happened between, and among all of you, as you built relationships, will not appear on your transcripts, but it is absolutely vital to what you learned at Middlebury. Perhaps, the most essential element of your education, and such an important part of what you will take with you when you leave tomorrow. Right now, I’d also like to ask that we pause to remember Eric Masinter, a member of the Class of 2021, who passed away in the summer of 2019. Eric was a musician, an artist, a writer, and a rock climber. We remember him, and his family, and friends, today. I ask you to join me in a moment of silence. And in that same spirit of gratitude that we have for Eric’s life, let us continue to be grateful for all the people that allowed us, that made it happen that we are able to be here together, in-person, now. I’d like to thank Dean Mark Orton and Professor Jeff Bittner for organizing this service, and also those who are responsible for this afternoon’s music. George Matthew, the College Carillonneur, the Middlebury College Choir, Jeff Bittner, Associate Professor of Music, and our wonderful cellists. >>


[FOREIGN] Happy is the one who finds wisdom. The one who attains understanding. Wisdom’s value and trade, is better than silver. Her yields greater than gold. She is more precious than rubies. All of your goods cannot equal her. In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds onto her, is happy. The Lord founded the Earth by wisdom. The Lord established the heavens by understanding. By the Lord’s knowledge, the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew. >> A reading on wisdom, from the Bhagavad Gita. [FOREIGN] In this world, there is no purifier like wisdom. In time, one who is oneself perfected by yoga, finds that wisdom in the self. >> I’ll be reading from the New Testament, James verse 3:13-18. [FOREIGN] [FOREIGN]. [FOREIGN]. [FOREIGN], Who among you are wise and understanding by their good manner of life? Let them demonstrate their deeds in wisdom’s meekness. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and lie against the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but one that is earthbound, unspiritual, demonic for where there is jealousy, and selfish ambition, there is disorder, and every kind of mean practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then it is peaceable, gentle, open to persuasion. It is filled with mercy and with good fruits, it is not divided, it is not insincere. But the fruit that is righteousness is sown in peace by the makers of peace. [MUSIC] >> [APPLAUSE] >>

I’ll be reading from the Quran chapter 2 verse 267 to 269. [FOREIGN]. [FOREIGN]. [FOREIGN]. You who believe give charitably from the good things you have acquired, and that we have produced for you from the earth. Do not give away the bad things that you yourself will only accept with your eyes closed. And remember that God is self sufficient, worthy of all praise. Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and commends you to do foul deeds. God promises you His forgiveness and his abundance. God is limitless and all knowing and he gives wisdom to whomever he will whoever is given wisdom has surely been given much good, but only those with insight bear this in mind. >> Reading from Zen Master linji. [FOREIGN]. When student today fail to make progress where is the fault? The fault lies in the fact they don’t have faith in themselves. If you don’t have faith in your self then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you. You’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in, and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and Buddhists. >> I’ll be reading a passage from Toni Morrison’s 1989, Sarah Lawrence college commencement address. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of awake and alert one. Not idle, wishful speculation, but engaged directed daytime vision. About entrance into another space. Someone else’s situation, sphere projection if you’d like. By dreaming the South Smith’s intimacy with the other without risk of being the other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede all of our decision making all of our cause mongering and our action. We are in a mess, you know and we have to get out. We should visualize, imagine, dream up and enter the other before you presume to solve their problems or ours. We might as well dream the dream, the world as it ought to be. [MUSIC] [MUSIC] [APPLAUSE] >>  

Good afternoon, and welcome to your penultimate ritual at Middlebury. Before you go out to change the world. Changing the world is indeed a lot of responsibility. But as I look and think about all that you have done since you began here, there is no doubt in my mind that you are fully prepared to take it on. You are exceptional class of 2021 remarkable. Who together and as individuals have already managed more over the last four years, and under exceptional remarkable circumstances. That what many people dream of taking on in a lifetime. Let me offer you some numbers as evidence. Among you are two Watson fellows, three Fulbright’s, two critical language scholar recipients, two Eudoll scholars and one humanity and action summer fellow. 22 of you are CTLR stem tutors, 30 of you are peer writing tutors. 11 are peer language tutors working in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, French and Japanese. And some of you in several of those languages. More than 100 of you were summer research assistants with Middlebury faculty. 131 of you presented at a Spring symposium, and one of you presented each of the three years that it was held. 120 of you competed in athletics. You have been part of five NCAA Champion teams, including the field hockey team, which won the national title in each of the three seasons that they were able to compete during your time as students. You experienced great success against our NESCAC peers earning 12 conference championships. The 2019 championship football team was the first in the conferences 50 years to compile a perfect 9 - 0 record. And we can now say because we had no athletics this past fall, that we’ve been undefeated for two years in a row. Four of you senior athletes garnered four all American honors. 57 of you participated in mid-core. Seven of you through language and motion developed and delivered programming to support the global awareness, and curiosity, and intercultural competence of literally Hundreds of Vermont school children. Four of you received academic outreach endowment awards. And 10 of you received public service leadership awards for projects that included compiling COVID-19 scientific data and strengthening local food systems. Three of you completed the full requirements of our new privilege and poverty academic cluster and are graduating as P & P scholars. Four of you undertook a P & P Addison county internship and one of you had P & P national internship. Six of you were oratory now head coaches. 57 of you participated in mid core and 20 of you worked at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. And almost half of the senior class are members of the museum. You led museum tours of exhibitions about Islamic art and women’s suffrage. You organized a film screening to mark World Aid’s Day. You help curate exhibitions about activists art and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. That’s all that you’ve accomplished as individuals and in small groups. And even more, you’ve organized Nocturne, an all night campus art festival. You developed and directed a translation project to gather, preserve and share the story of Japanese Americans during World War II. You co-led mid women on Wall Street. You developed and ran a girls empowerment program in Ethiopia. You designed furniture for a Habitat for Humanity house. You worked on a project to unlock the genome of the Africa diaspora. You challenged yourselves and each other to keep Middlebury learning in person this year, keeping our COVID cases low and our community safe. You challenged us more directly to confront systemic racism in our country and on our campus. To increase campus diversity and equal access to the full Middlebury experience. Broaden our understanding of accessibility and gender identification and inclusivity, and acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land where campus now sits. These statistics I just cited are inspiring. You did all this. And yet they might sound like they are from another world, a dream. A New York pandemic collaborative poem co-written by Tamila and Rachel Lee ends with the following lines. It was all a dream. I used to leave the house without a mask. But now I sneeze into a napkin and push the window closed. You must feel that way about your college experience. Because you really had two college experiences. Before in that dream like time there was a world without masks inside or out. When your circle of friends was not defined as your pod or close contacts, and people could come and go as they pleased. When you could walk into town and not worry about the person who walked by on the street nearby. When you didn’t have to fight a sense of isolation every day in the cold, because you knew you would run into people to hang out with and do so without worry. When your faces and the faces of your professors and your coaches and your friends weren’t flattened by an image on the screen, but we’re whole and alive. Before you lived in a world where performances could occur in front of packed audiences, including brothers and aunts from out of town, and bodies could touch on stage, where bodies were supposed to touch on stage. When a hug could happen at a game, where someone could lean over your shoulder to help you on a lab assignment. Take a beaker from you, check the measurements and put it back in your hand. Then came the second world, the COVID world where you never knew what the rules were going to be from one day to the next. Where you knew your friends and teachers only by their eyes and noses. Where you learned in childhood bedrooms that you thought you had left behind forever. Where you spent hours in two dimensional sessions of endless squares. Where laughter was muffled by masks. Where your enthusiasm for a problem solved had to be contained by a simulation on a screen. And where the news from home included statistics from your county, or your country, about the number of hospital beds available, and about people whom you knew from childhood who were sick. Where you didn’t just share stories of intellectual adventure, but stories of loss. Everyone has lost someone to COVID. That second world has created habits in you that will stay forever. Your very DNA has changed, your bodies have changed. You will have the muscle memory in your fingers that makes you put on a mask in a split second. You will never read a community health dashboard carelessly again. You will probably find it strange and may even have a visceral reaction to being in a crowd at a concert, where thousands of people are singing along close together. Those experiences will shape you, but as you leave Middlebury I want to remind you of something deeper and more important. You are leaving us in a time of hope. In November I spoke to a freezing group of Feb grads at the stadium. Physically distant at an event hastily planned before the second Vermont shutdown occurred due to an alarming surge of cases across the state. Today, in May we are seated and will be seated together with family and friends nearby tomorrow with skyrocketing vaccination rates and plummeting positive COVID rates. We are in fact sitting in a county with the highest vaccination rate in the state, and a state that has the highest vaccination rate in the nation. Today we are moving into a world of green, not yellow or red warnings. And today then we feel a hope. But it is also a hope born of hardship, a hope born of what you have witnessed. As Naomi Shihab Nye has written in her poem, before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things. Feel the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. Naomi Nye goes on, before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak it until your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. This poem this past 15 months has been a favorite of health care workers, who as one put it, didn’t know what to do with all the sorrow didn’t have a place to put it. They were traveling in the desert, desolate landscapes between kindnesses, and found solace in the word that describes a future crumbling part of their everyday experience. This poem has also given so solace to those like you who are working against the deep global challenges of climate damage, systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. That even as the pandemic recedes, content continue to undermine our hope for a better world. You too have felt the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth and yet, here’s the most remarkable thing. The awe inspiring thing, the thing that we all do not cease to marvel at. In the midst of and because of the challenges of COVID, you have built a livable world. You all of you together have built a livable world. Let me begin with the basic extraordinary fact. Middlebury was open for in person residential learning all year. And Middlebury you, had one of the lowest if not the lowest rate of positive cases if any, college in the country this year. That’s reason to be inspired, and it’s reason to ask how I know the answers. You, you made Middlebury that livable world. You did this first through a respect for health and for science. Through faithfulness in the simplest things, wearing a mask, washing your hands, respecting physical distance. In that simple sentiment in the note I received on my porch one evening from the student residence in an off campus house. We want to work together to make this a successful year. Through faithful attendance at the testing center Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays, Mondays, Thursdays. By sitting bravely in the stark loneliness of quarantine, by joining a peer counseling group online. We struggled with surveillance culture, we struggled together with whether the phases of the fall term really helped. We struggled with mental health, with disappointed parents, with trying to apply the safety and health rules fairly. With parties that seemed okay and then suddenly weren’t, with rules about close contacts that were in the end arbitrary and difficult to define. With anxiety about when and how we could be vaccinated with missing our families and not being able to see them when we needed them most. But through it all, you respected each other and you respected the science. You made Middlebury a livable world. You did this also through strength and creativity of spirit. You found a way to continue learning online, as if it had always been this way. You called your professors more often. COVID studies show that professors now are more comfortable calling their own students too. You focused on collaborative classes with your fellow Middlebury students in China, in Turkey, in California. You learned with your professors how to do sustainable and affordable chemistry experiments. You created new ways to be artistic, nocturne, thrived in COVID. You built a new stage upon which you could perform, you danced at night at a Battell Beach, you broadcast music throughout the whole campus. The long arguments in Philosophy and Literature continued. The team practices were a different kind of dance across Middlebury’s fields. The climate change activism created new partnerships with the residents of the town. You planned and flawlessly carried out powerful protests in a year of racial reckoning. You made Middlebury a livable world. Most importantly, you did this through kindness. You did this through the mutual aid initiatives that helped other students, through signing on for peer counseling groups more than ever before. You planned birthday meals for your friends in quarantine with Dining Services. You tutored primary and secondary school students online more than ever before. In the spring, you made sure your peers could get the vaccine through fundraising drives for essential workers at Middlebury and in Addison County. And when you were asked, you said that you cared about your peers’ health as a first priority, your own health was second. This kindness made Middlebury a livable world. As Naomi Nye puts it, then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore. Only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread. Only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say, it is I you have been looking for and then kindness goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend. You are going out in a time of hope, one that is born and woven of challenges and moments of sadness that no college student should have to face. And yet you did, you embraced them. You felt your future dissolve before you like salt in a broth, and then you built a different future. As you and the world move into a new and healthier time, never forget how you practice that kindness. Never forget that the wise seasoned kindness, the kindness that knows loss is the basis of the most profound hope, and that hope should go with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend. We are prouder of you than we could ever say in words, go now and build a livable world. Congratulations. >> [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC] >> [APPLAUSE] >>

In the name of the all encompassing, the most loving, the infinitely transcendent, we gather today in celebration, presence, and gratitude, let us bear witness to all that it took to bring you here. The all-nighters, the exhausting attempts to meet word count, the never ending soap opera dramas of Middlebury events, the discovery of novel human phenomenon like Chronic Zoom Fatigue, or revenge, bedtime procrastination. Yeah, that’s a real thing, go figure. But also your resilience, the growth you experienced against all odds, the unexpected friendships forged amid scarcity and anxiety, and the ability to imbibe excellence in these circumstances. Let us take a moment of silence to lovingly acknowledge all that you have experienced these past four years. I ask the most loving and all encompassing to bring us into awareness of the following verses by the Islamic Sage Masnavi Rumi. Sorrow prepares you for joy, it violently sweeps everything out of your house so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bow of your heart so that fresh green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place. So let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. May these words embrace in the path leading to your next chapter. In the years and decades ahead, may your deepest purpose become your most pleasant labor. And may this phase of your journey and your continued resilience, illuminate the darkest corners of the world and broaden humanity’s potential. You made it, you did it. Assalamu alaikum, may peace be with you and upon you.

View the Baccalaureate Program




Jeff Cason
Provost and Executive Vice President

Derek Doucet
Dean of Students

Danielle A. Stillman
Associate Chaplain and Jewish Advisor

Mark R. Orten
Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life and Director of the Scott Center

Sujata Moorti
Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Faculty, and
Charles A. Dana Professor

Saifa Hussain
Associate Chaplain and Muslim Advisor

Laurie L. Patton


Founded in 1800 with Protestant roots, Middlebury College has always been a nonsectarian institution. This Baccalaureate service pays honor to the full history of the College and its many traditions. One of these is an address to the senior class by the president at the time of Commencement.

The Baccalaureate service intends to welcome people of all faiths and no faith in the spirit of the College’s intellectual heritage. We extend warm greetings to all those in attendance, affirming the importance of shared human values that are central to religious traditions and beliefs. We recognize our rich past and celebrate the diversity of beliefs and worldviews represented among the members of this senior class and those in attendance.

George Matthew Jr., College Carillonneur

Jeffrey G. Buettner, Director of Choral Activities, Organist, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music



“Andantino” from Duet in C for Two Cellos F. A. Kummer
Ashley Wang ’21 and Wheeler Jarvis ’21, cellists


Dean Mark R. Orten


Rabbi Danielle Stillman


President Laurie L. Patton


The Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:13–20
Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

The Bhagavad Gita 4.38–39
Laurie Patton

The New Testament, James 3:13–18
Georgia Vasilopoulos


“Andante” from Sonata in G
Jean-Baptiste Barrière
Ashley Wang ’21 and Wheeler Jarvis ’21, cellists


The Qur’an 2:267–269
Hadjara Gado Alzouma

Zen Teaching of Master Linji (d. 867)
Benjy Renton

Toni Morrison
Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, 1989
Chima Dimgba


Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal
William Billings, arr. Jeffrey Buettner
Middlebury College Choir Graduating Seniors


President Laurie L. Patton


The Lord Bless You and Keep You
Peter C. Lutkin (1858–1931)
Middlebury College Choir Graduating Seniors


Chaplain Saifa Hussain


George Matthew, Jr.